In 1935, Aldo Leopold bought a worn out farm along the Wisconsin River. Taking up residence in a former chicken coop, they wanted to live close to the land. “Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order,” he wrote in his now-classic A Sand County Almanac.
The former homestead was also the site of his grand experiment in attempting to bring life back to Dust Bowl era terrain. Over the course of more than a decade the family of seven planted about 50,000 trees and today their property (part of the Aldo Leopold Foundation) is a lush landscape of conifers, hardwoods and prairie.
His “backyard” experiment was a part of his bigger idea that we need to develop a land ethic, that is to treat nature with the same respect we would our family or our pets. “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Every year Leopold, his wife, and five children planted between 3,000 and 5,000 trees (mostly pines because they were on a limited budget), asserting his belief that we all have the power to create. “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one. If his back be strong and his shovel sharp, there may eventually be ten thousand.”
Every day, Leopold studied the wildlife and vegetation around him, recording it in his notebooks, and leaving a record that has been used today to study climate change. For Leopold this land ethic was not about conservation for conservation’s sake, but for selfish reasons: to protect a one-of-a-kind playground.
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot… Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television.”